Common Myths about Grief and Mourning

(Adapted from material presented by Dr. Alan Wolfelt, Founder and Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado. He is a respected grief counselor and author, known throughout the world for his compassionate messages of hope and healing in grief. Visit his website at: http://www.centerforloss.com).

Myth #1: Grief and mourning are the same experience.

Although the words “grief” and “mourning” are often used synonymously, an important distinction exists between them. “Grief” is the composite of thoughts and feelings about a loss that you experience within yourself. In other words, grief is the internal meaning given to the experience of bereavement. In contrast, “mourning” is when you take the grief on the inside and express it outside of yourself.

Mourning is the public expression of one’s private grief. Crying, talking about the person who died, or celebrating special anniversary dates of the person you loved are a few examples. The most obvious expression of mourning is found in funeral or memorial services.

After someone loved dies, friends may encourage the bereaved to keep their grief to themselves, with the disastrous results of bottling up all the thoughts and feelings inside. A catalyst for healing, however, can only be created when they develop the courage to mourn publicly in the presence of understanding, caring persons who will mourn with them. At times, of course, they will grieve alone, but expressing grief outside of oneself is necessary for the bereaved to move forward in their grief journey.

Myth #2: The experiences of grief and mourning progress in predictable, orderly stages.

In grief counseling much is said about the “stages of grief.” The concept of “stages” was popularized in 1969 with the publication of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ landmark book, On Death and Dying. Kubler-Ross never intended for people to standardize the “stages of grief” into a rigid system of what people should expect and experience in their bereavement.

Perhaps the attempts to “standardize” bereavement arises from the need to make sense out of grief and to eliminate the “out-of-control feeling” that comes with the unknown and unexpected. If grief will cooperate and proceed in an orderly, predictable manner, it may provide some sense of security and manageability. If only it were so simple! But grief is not usually orderly, tidy, and predictable, nor are human beings.

The danger is that caregivers may adopt a rigid system of stages that is imposed upon the bereaved in terms of what they should experience in their grief journey. If this is internalized by the bereaved, they may try to prescribe their grief experience to fit these expectations and force themselves into one stage or another – with disastrous results.

The experience of grief is unique to each person and everyone mourns in different ways. Some people may bypass completely some of the common emotions that accompany grief (guilt, for example). Regression may occur anywhere along the way, causing previous emotions and thoughts to be re-visited. Overlapping often occurs with two or more emotions present simultaneously. Some emotional issues may be resolved in a short time; others may take years.

The bereaved should not be concerned with trying to move through prescribed stages of grief. Describing the common responses to grief should be done in a general way that expresses flexibility and reflects the uniqueness of grieving and mourning, rather than imposing a strict, rigid formula to be followed in stages.

Good advice to the bereaved: “No one ever existed exactly like you before, and no one will ever be exactly like you again. As part of the healing process, the thoughts and feelings you will experience will be totally unique to you. Do not try to determine where you should be. Just allow yourself to be naturally where you are in the process.”

Myth #3: Move away from grief, not toward it.

Our society often encourages prematurely moving away from grief instead of toward it. The result is that too many bereaved people either grieve in isolation or attempt to run away from their grief through various means. Often heard is the misguided advice to “stay busy so you don’t think about it.”

During ancient times, Stoic philosophers encouraged their followers not to mourn, believing that self-control was the appropriate response to sorrow. Today, well-intentioned, but uninformed, relatives and friends still carry on this long held idea. While the outward expression of grief (mourning) is a requirement for healing, to overcome society’s powerful message which encourages repression is sometimes difficult.

Our culture is impatient with grief and uncomfortable in its presence. It encourages people to move away from grief with the expectation that within a few months after the funeral one should “be back to normal.” Bereaved persons who continue to express their grief are often viewed as “weak” or “self-pitying.” The subtle message is “get over it, turn the page, and get on with life.” If grieving and mourning are to be done at all, they should be done quickly, quietly, and efficiently. The end result of the culture’s influence is disturbing: far too many people view grief as something to be avoided or overcome rather than experienced.

These messages encourage the bereaved to repress thoughts and feelings surrounding the death. Weeping makes many people uncomfortable, so tears are not welcomed. Talking about our deceased loved one is viewed as “morbid,” therefore is not socially acceptable. Suffering in stoic silence is considered a sign of strength (“you’ve got to be strong”) and is often admired as acceptable behavior.

Though well-intended, the repression of grief and mourning is actually counter productive to our healing. “I may try to protect myself from my sadness by not talking about my loss. But trying to protect myself from pain will only lead to more pain. As difficult as it is, I must feel it to heal it” (The Journey Through Grief: Reflections on Healing).

Myth #4: Following the death of someone loved, the goal should be to “get over” your grief as soon as possible.

This myth is closely associated with the mistaken idea of “closure” – that once the funeral is over and an acceptable period of mourning has passed, this chapter of one’s life should be “closed” so he/she can move on. It is also related to our cultural tendency to resist things that are open ended. Those in Western cultural (especially Americans) are uncomfortable with the tension of unresolved issues.

In clinical terms, the final dimension of grief is referred to by a number of different terms: “resolution,” “recovery,” “reestablishment,” or “reorganization.” Perhaps the best term is “reconciliation.” It describes what occurs as one integrates the new reality of moving forward in life without the physical presence of the person who had died. It does not mean getting over grief. It means growing through it.

In the grief journey, it may take years for some people to reach a point of reconciliation. It is a process, not an event. As reconciliation is achieved, the pain one feels changes from an ever-present, sharp, overwhelming grief to an acknowledged sense of loss that gives rise to renewed meaning and purpose. The feeling of loss does not completely disappear, but it does soften and the intense pangs of grief become less frequent as hope for a continued life begins to emerge.

The goal is not to “get over” grief, but to journey through it. The caregiver’s role is not to try and rush the process, but simply to be a companion to the bereaved as they make the journey … in their own way and at their own pace.

Myth #5: Tears and other expressions of grief are only a sign of “weakness.”

The “mourning avoiding cultural” in which we live is uncomfortable in the presence of tears and expressions of grief make many people feel awkward and uneasy. Tears are also regarded as a tendency toward personal inadequacy and weakness (this is especially true among males). As a result, misguided but well intended people may try to prevent or inhibit expressions of grief with quaint sayings such as, “tears won’t bring them back” or “he wouldn’t want you to cry.”

One of the worst things the bereaved can do is to allow this judgment to prevent themselves from crying or expressing their grief in other ways. Crying is nature’s way of releasing internal tension in your body and it allows us to communicate to others our need to be comforted. The caregiver’s response to tears should be to comfort, not to silence. Researchers suggest that suppression of tears may actually increase one’s susceptibility to stress-related disorders.

The capacity to express tears brings emotional and physical release to the body and appears to allow for genuine healing. The capacity for tears is not a sign of weakness. It is an indication of one’s willingness to do the “work of mourning.”

A Final Observation

When surrounded by people who believe in these myths, the bereaved will probably feel a heightened sense of isolation. If the people who are closest to them are unable to emotionally support them without judging, other support systems should be sought out and put in place. The ability to be supportive without judging is usually found in individuals who have been on a grief journey themselves and are willing to “companion” others in their grief. When the bereaved are surrounded by people who can distinguish the myths of grief from the realities, they can experience the healing they need and deserve.